Space Studies

The Coolest Experiment in the Universe

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Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

 

Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) physicist David Aveline works in the CAL test bed Shown here is theInternational Space Station Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) Cold Atom Laboratory Astronaut Ricky Arnold assists with the installation of NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory The International Space Station, shown here in 2018, is home to many scientific experiments, including NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory. Credit: NASA

 

The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) consists of two standardized containers that will be installed on the International Space Station. The larger container holds CAL’s physics package, or the compartment where CAL will produce clouds of ultracold atoms. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What’s the coldest place you can think of? Temperatures on a winter day in Antarctica dip as low as -120ºF (-85ºC). On the dark side of the Moon, they hit -280ºF (-173ºC). But inside NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory on the International Space Station, scientists are creating something even colder.

The Cold Atom Lab (CAL) is the first facility in orbit to produce clouds of “ultracold” atoms, which can reach a fraction of a degree above absolute zero: -459ºF (-273ºC), the absolute coldest temperature that matter can reach. Nothing in nature is known to hit the temperatures achieved in laboratories like CAL, which means the orbiting facility is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe.

 NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory on the International Space Station is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe. But why are scientists producing clouds of atoms a fraction of a degree above absolute zero? And why do they need to do it in space? Quantum physics, of course.

USeven months after its May 21, 2018, launch to the space station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, CAL is producing ultracold atoms daily. Five teams of scientists will carry out experiments on CAL during its first year, and three experiments are already underway. 

 

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NASA’s Voyager 2 Probe Enters Interstellar Space

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Dwayne Brown / Karen Fox
NASA Headquarters, Washington

Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

This illustration shows the position of NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

For the second time in history, a human-made object has reached the space between the stars. NASA’s Voyager 2 probe now has exited the heliosphere – the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun.

Members of NASA’s Voyager team will discuss the findings at a news conference at 11 a.m. EST (8 a.m. PST) today at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington. The news conference will stream live on the agency’s website.

Comparing data from different instruments aboard the trailblazing spacecraft, mission scientists determined the probe crossed the outer edge of the heliosphere on Nov. 5. This boundary, called the heliopause, is where the tenuous, hot solar wind meets the cold, dense interstellar medium. Its twin, Voyager 1, crossed this boundary in 2012, but Voyager 2 carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway into interstellar space.

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Ancient Stardust Sheds Light on the First Stars

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This research was presented in a paper entitled “Dust in the Reionization Era: ALMA Observations of a z =8.38 Gravitationally-Lensed Galaxy”
by Laporte et al., to appear in 
The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

 
This artist’s impression shows what the very distant young galaxy A2744_YD4 might look like. Observations using ALMA have shown that this galaxy, seen when the Universe was just 4% of its current age, is rich in dust. Such dust was produced by an earlier generation of stars and these observations provide insights into the birth and explosive deaths of the very first stars in the Universe. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
 
Astronomers have used ALMA to detect a huge mass of glowing stardust in a galaxy seen when the Universe was only four percent of its present age. This galaxy was observed shortly after its formation and is the most distant galaxy in which dust has been detected. This observation is also the most distant detection of oxygen in the Universe. These new results provide brand-new insights into the birth and explosive deaths of the very first stars.

An international team of astronomers, led by Nicolas Laporte of University College London, have used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to observe A2744_YD4, the youngest and most remote galaxy ever seen by ALMA. They were surprised to find that this youthful galaxy contained an abundance of interstellar dust — dust formed by the deaths of an earlier generation of stars.

Follow-up observations using the X-shooter instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope confirmed the enormous distance to A2744_YD4. The galaxy appears to us as it was when the Universe was only 600 million years old, during the period when the first stars and galaxies were forming [1].

 

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Particles in Love: Quantum Mechanics Explored in New Study

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Technology used to study the “love” between particles is also being used in research to improve communications between space and Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Fast Facts: 
 
 

  • Entangled particles influence each other instantaneously even when they are physically far apart.
  • In the 1960s, theoretical physicist John Bell proposed that a model of reality with hidden variables must allow for this entanglement.
  • Three papers published in 2015 support Bell’s hypothesis.

Here’s a love story at the smallest scales imaginable: particles of light. It is possible to have particles that are so intimately linked that a change to one affects the other, even when they are separated at a distance.

This idea, called “entanglement,” is part of the branch of physics called quantum mechanics, a description of the way the world works at the level of atoms and particles that are even smaller. Quantum mechanics says that at these very tiny scales, some properties of particles are based entirely on probability. In other words, nothing is certain until it happens.

 

Testing Bell’s Theorem

Albert Einstein did not entirely believe that the laws of quantum mechanics described reality. He and others postulated that there must be some hidden variables at work, which would allow quantum systems to be predictable. In 1964, however, John Bell published the idea that any model of physical reality with such hidden variables also must allow for the instantaneous influence of one particle on another. While Einstein proved that information cannot travel faster than the speed of light, particles can still affect each other when they are far apart according to Bell.

 

Scientists consider Bell’s theorem an important foundation for modern physics. While many experiments have taken place to try to prove his theorem, no one was able to run a full, proper test of the experiment Bell would have needed until recently. In 2015, three separate studies were published on this topic, all consistent with the predictions of quantum mechanics and entanglement.

“What’s exciting is that in some sense, we’re doing experimental philosophy,” said Krister Shalm, physicist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Boulder, Colorado. Shalm is lead author on one of the 2015 studies testing Bell’s theorem. “Humans have always had certain expectations of how the world works, and when quantum mechanics came along, it seemed to behave differently.”
 

How ‘Alice and Bob’ Test Quantum Mechanics

The paper by Shalm, Marsili and colleagues was published in the journal Physical Review Letters, with the mind-bending title “Strong Loophole-Free Test of Local Realism.”

“Our paper and the other two published last year show that Bell was right: any model of the world that contains hidden variables must also allow for entangled particles to influence one another at a distance,” said Francesco Marsili of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who collaborated with Shalm.

An analogy helps to understand the experiment, which was conducted at a NIST laboratory in Boulder:

Imagine that A and B are entangled photons. A is sent to Alice and B is sent to Bob, who are located 607 feet (185 meters) apart.

Alice and Bob poke and prod at their photons in all kinds of ways to get a sense of their properties. Without talking to each other, they then each randomly decide how to measure their photons, using random number generators to guide their decisions. When Alice and Bob compare notes, they are surprised to find that the results of their independent experiments are correlated. In other words, even at a distance, measuring one photon of the entangled pair affects the properties of the other photon.

“It’s as if Alice and Bob try to tear the two photons apart, but their love still persists,” Shalm said. In other words, the entangled photons behave as if they are two parts of a single system, even when separated in space.

Alice and Bob — representing actual photon detectors — then repeat this with many other pairs of entangled photons, and the phenomenon persists.

In reality, the photon detectors are not people, but superconducting nanowire single photon detectors (SNSPDs). SNSPDs are metal strips that are cooled until they become “superconducting,” meaning they lose their electric resistance. A photon hitting this strip causes it to turn into a normal metal again momentarily, so the resistance of the strip jumps from zero to a finite value. This change in resistance allows the researchers to record the event.

To make this experiment happen in a laboratory, the big challenge is to avoid losing photons as they get sent to the Alice and Bob detectors through an optical fiber. JPL and NIST developed SNSPDs with worldrecord performance, demonstrating more than 90 percent efficiency and low “jitter,” or uncertainty on the time of arrival of a photon. This experiment would not have been possible without SNSPDs.
 

Why This is Useful

The design of this experiment could potentially be used in cryptography — making information and communications secure — as it involves generating random numbers.

“The same experiment that tells us something deep about how the world is constructed also can be used for these applications that require you to keep your information safe,” Shalm said.

Cryptography isn’t the only application of this research. Detectors similar to those used for the experiment, which were built by JPL and NIST, could eventually also be used for deep-space optical communication. With a high efficiency and low uncertainty about the time of signal arrival, these detectors are well-suited for transmitting information with pulses of light in the optical spectrum.

“Right now we have the Deep Space Network to communicate with spacecraft around the solar system, which encodes information in radio signals. With optical communications, we could increase the data rate of that network 10- to 100-fold,” Marsili said.

Deep space optical communication using technology similar to the detectors in Marsili’s experiment was demonstrated with NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere Dust and Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission, which orbited the moon from October 2013 to April 2014. A technology mission called the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration, with components on LADEE and on the ground, downlinked data encoded in laser pulses, and made use of ground receivers based on SNSPDs.

NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate is working on the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) mission. The mission proposes to revolutionize the way we send and receive data, video and other information, using lasers to encode and transmit data at rates 10 to 100 times faster than today’s fastest radio-frequency systems, using significantly less mass and power.

“Information can never travel faster than the speed of light — Einstein was right about that. But through optical communications research, we can increase the amount of information we send back from space,” Marsili said. “The fact that the detectors from our experiment have this application creates great synergy between the two endeavors.”

And so, what began as the study of “love” between particles is contributing to innovations in communications between space and Earth. “Love makes the world go ’round,” and it may, in a sense, help us learn about other worlds.

NASA’s LRO Spacecraft Finds March 17, 2013 Impact Crater and More

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NOTE: This post was in pending and should have been published. This was an issue we had in the beginning by updating the blog via e-mail. Although it is late, the information in this article is important and interesting – George.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) acquired images of the lunar surface before and after the largest recorded explosion occurred on the surface.

On March 17, 2013, an object the size of a small boulder hit the surface in Mare Imbrium and exploded in a flash of light nearly 10 times as bright as anything ever recorded before.

This bright flash was recorded by researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville with coordinates 20.6°N, 336.1°E.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Camera (LROC) scientists were able to obtain observations before and after the impact.

<youtube>Video of the LROC</youtube>

Comparing the actual size of the crater to the brightness of the flash helps validate impact models.

LROC’s first set of post-impact flash images acquired on May 21, 2013 by the Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) were targeted on the Marshall-reported coordinates and numerous small surface disturbances (“splotches”) were detected by comparing the pre- and post-flash images, but no new crater was found.

A second set of NAC images was acquired on July 1, 2013, showing three faint ray-like features and several chains of splotches and asymmetric splotches that generally pointed to a common area west of the Marshall coordinates. A NAC pair was targeted on that convergence point for July 28, 2013; comparison of this third set of images with preexisting coverage revealed a new crater.

 Before and After Images

LROC close-up image of the moon from Feb. 12, 2012
LROC close-up image of the moon from July 28, 2013, showing an impact crater created on March 17 of that year
lt-small.pngrt-small.png  The crater itself is small, measuring 18.8 meters (61.7 feet) in diameter, but its influence large; debris excavated by the sudden release of energy flew for hundreds of meters. More than 200 related superficial changes up to 30 kilometers (19 miles) away were noted.

The results are published in the January 31 edition of the journal Icarus.

The March 17 impact crater is one of thousands of craters being mapped by the instrument. The LROC team is going back to images taken in the first year or two and comparing them to recent images. Called temporal pairs, these before/after images enable the search for a range of surface changes, including new impact craters, formed between the time the first and second image were acquired.

As of January 1, 2015, LROC has acquired about 10,000 before and after image pairs.

Launched on June 18, 2009, LRO has collected a treasure trove of data with its seven powerful instruments, making an invaluable contribution to our knowledge about the moon. LRO is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

To download the visualizations of these impacts, visit:
http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/goto?4242

To read more about the March 17, 2013, impact crater, visit LROC’s website:
http://lroc.sese.asu.edu/posts/770